• 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Well, what did it matter? Her principal had assured them that everybody learned the same thing, using the same government text-books, and took the same national exams, so they should not feel less than anybody else. And he was right: she and Thara studied together sometimes, and the only difference between what they learned was that Thara read it all in government textbooks that always seemed brand-new while Latha read textbooks that were always dog-eared and battered.

“Nobody in my school is absent for that long,” Latha said. “We only know because they walk all grown-up, looking for boys.”

“How strange,” Thara said, looking genuinely puzzled. “I wonder why they don’t get to take a holiday.”

Latha shrugged. It seemed pointless to stay home for seven days, for her, anyway. If she stayed home, she’d only have to do more work. More laundry, more fetching and carrying, more of the driver and his stupid comments. May as well go to school. Besides, she got to see Gehan on her way to school and on her way back. He met her each morning and cycled next to her down two entire streets in the middle of her walk; a few times he’d even let her ride with him, seated on the middle bar, her legs twisted tight together and away from the pedals, her head not touching but, still, only inches from his chin, near enough to feel his breath. Too close to home and someone would tell the Vithanages. Too close to school and someone would tell the teachers. But in the middle they were invisible. That anonymous time was what she woke up for each morning these days, for those twice-daily meetings with Gehan, whose interest in her had not wavered even after he realized that she and Thara did not share the same social status though they emerged and disappeared behind the same walls. She wished she could tell Thara, but some unspoken agreement made both Gehan and her remain quiet about their more-than-a-friend friendship.

Once, she had tried to bring it up with him. “I wonder if Thara Baba knows…” and she had faded off, assuming he knew what she meant. But he had taken her down another trajectory of thought, musing instead about the relative worth of the Vithanages.

“Families like hers always try to be better than they are by surrounding themselves with people they can bully. If you take all those people away. Thara is the same as you and me, Latha. Worse, even. How would they ever look after themselves if they didn’t have some-body to order about to do it for them? I’m telling you, they are the ones the JVP is after. When they get into power, it’ll be all over for people like them.”

Latha had neither agreed nor disagreed; she didn’t care about politics anyway. She was content simply to listen to him put the two of them on the same side of this equation and happy to join him in that space. She thought, also, that the school principal would approve of her choice had he known of it, the same way Thara was sure her mother, Mrs. Vithanage, would approve of Ajith if she knew of him. And standing next to Gehan that day, Latha had conjured up a wedding she had seen in a teledrama just that week and let it play in her head, substituting herself for the heroine and imagining the whole thing; herself decked in white, with those seven necklaces, including the gold jewelry around her forehead, jewels on her feet and over her arms, a bouquet of yellow araliya clasped in her hands, and Gehan dressed up like a nilame, four-cornered turban and all, his thin body plumped by the forty-eight yards of cotton cloth in his costume, a glittering silver knife tucked into his belt, and proud to extend his hand and watch the kapumahaththaya tie their little fingers together while the voices of nine little girls all dressed in white half saris washed over them with their blessings.

She smiled to herself now as she remembered this, seeing those little girls all over again, hearing those first lines, Bahoong sahassa mabinim… miths sa yudanthang…

Next to her, Thara sighed. “I can’t wait to wear a bra.”

Latha stared at her for a few moments, reluctantly letting go of her secrets so she could consider Thara’s latest dilemma. “You don’t have anything to put into a bar!” she said, feeling cruel, and started laughing.

“Neither do you,” Thara said, tightening her lips in annoyance.

“Yes, but at least I’m not like you, Thara Baba, hankering after one. I don’t want to look like this.” She go up and held Mrs. Vithanage’s gigantic wet bra in front of her chest with soapy hands, then popped the centers of the cups. “Thok! Thok!” she said. Thara laughed and picked up another bra. They chased each other around the well, shrieking with delight, puffing out Mrs. Vithanage’s bras and taking turns deflating each other’s “breasts.”

But some goddess must have been watching, because just as they ran out of steam, Thara said, “I think I just got it.” She said it in a quiet voice. She bent her knees open, reached under her skirt, and pulled down her panties, and sure enough, there It was: a red smudge. Thara looked up at Latha, her yellow skirt with white poodles embroidered all along the hem clutched in one hand, her white underwear still held out, as if she expected Latha to add her to the pile of laundry. She was going to cry; Latha could see it coming.

“Wait right there, baba, I’ll go and tell madam,” Latha said, washing her hands in a fresh bucket of water and drying them on the edge of her dress. She turned the bucket over and told Thara to sit on it. “It’s a good thing this old well is still surrounded by albesia, isn’t it?” she said, wanting to be helpful, comforting. “Nobody can see you through the leaves.”

The next few minutes were a blur. Mrs. Vithanage came hot-footing it down to the well and covered Thara with the bedsheet that she had grabbed from the almirah. Latha liked making beds because the sheets (and towels) were done by the dhobi and the dhobi used starch and then pressed them with an iron the size of a stool and it gave them a wet-in-the-rain-burnt-in-the-sun smell. But Thara didn’t seem to care about the smell. She whimpered from under the sheet, walking like she had shit smeared between her legs, stepping with her feet wide apart, hopping from one side to the other on tiptoes as if the ground was muddy.

Latha had to miss seven days of school after all because Thara had to and she couldn’t see anbody but other females and her mother wasn’t about to sit in a room all day long and she didn’t want to see Soma, so it became Latha’s task. It wasn’t to bad because she got to chat and play cards with her friend, though while they did, the country went up in flames, with riots and looting and people burning in the streets, and neither of them knew about it until after it was all over because no bad news was shared with Thara or Latha during that time. And though I wasn’t happy time for anybody when they returned to school, Latha was glad that Thara had escaped having to absorb such things in the middle of becoming a Big Girl.

Mrs. Vithanage went with the driver to fetch Soma from her village, and goodness knows what she was promised because Soma came back, but she brought a certain air with her. Mrs. Vithanage made lots of telephone calls and took lots of short trips, and everything was said in hushed tones. Thara and Latha played cards, mostly 304, and Thara showed Latha the sanitary pads, which was tolerable, and then she had to take the outer wrappings off and flush the cotton down the toilet, which was not, but all in all it wasn’t so bad. Even if Latha couldn’t see Gehan, think about what she could tell him when she went back to school!

“What are they doing out there?” Thara asked on the third after-noon.

“Lots of telephone calls and lots of trips to the market for food,” Latha said, picking up the tall, narrow beside table that always seemed on the verge of collapsing and scraped the floor with a piercing sound if she dragged it, which, of course, she didn’t, having learned through hard experience not to, and putting Thara’s plate of rice in front of her.

“For whom?”

“Not for baba, clearly,” Latha said, laughing at Thara’s face as she surveyed her latest meal of rice with ash plantains and okra, both cooked white, gotukola mallum, and no meats. “I can smuggle some dried fish for you if you like,” she offered, feeling sorry for Thara.

“No. Amma says it’s bad to eat fried things and meats and chilli and sweets until the seven days are over.”

“Then what?”

“Then I can eat,” Thara said, stuffing a ball of rice into her mouth.

“Do you have to do this every month?”

“No, you fool! This is special because it’s the first time. You don’t know anything, do you?”

Well, it had been only three days since Thara knew nothing either, but Latha was willing to believe in the power of blood between her legs to enlighten her too. She wondered when she would get hers. Soon, she hoped. Then, not too soon, because Mrs. Vithanage would make her stay home like this, and who would keep her company? Not Thara, that was clear. Thara would go back to school. Soma, perhaps? Latha pictured the portly, uni-breasted that’s what she and Thara called breasts like that: breasts so large they seemed to have merged like the trunks of ancient trees old woman unfolding her mat next to hers on the floor of the storeroom instead of on the raised platform in her own room. She had a room because she was old; that’s what Mrs. Vithanage had told Latha once. She was old and she had looked after Mrs. Vithanage as a girl, so she had earned the right to her room and her bed. Frankly, Latha could not imagine either of those women as girls, but particularly not Mrs. Vithanage, because what girl could turn into such a solid, feet-firmly-planted woman? A woman with so little understanding of girls? Besides, that was not a bed Soma had; it was just a plank of wood. Beds had mattresses, didn’t they? And did Soma have a mattress? No, she didn’t. It was better to sleep on the floor, like Latha did, and not have to be grateful for a plank of wood that’s what she thought as she lay down on the cool concrete each night, her face to the ceiling, and traced the felt definition on her body: her collarbones, her rib cage, the slope toward her belly button, the rise to the bones beneath.

On day five Thara’s bleeding stopped and she asked to come out of he room to take a bath but her mother refused.

“You can’t take a bath until the dhobi is here to wash you,” she said, smiling kindly, Latha felt, at Thara. Mrs. Vithanage was a tall, erect woman with very good posture, and when she was kind, it made her look positively stately. Like a queen. Queen Elizabeth II, Latha thought, remembering a picture from a glossy tome called The Book of Queens, which Thara had shown her. Except taller, with heavier breasts and more hair. Maybe not Queen Elizabeth II. Maybe some other kind of queen. Latha ran down the list of queens in her head and forgot to be quiet and servantlike, the spoons clanging against the dishes as she cleaned up.

“I don’t want a stupid dhobi washing me,” Thara said, frowning again. She should stop frowning; she did it so often. It was not attractive on a face built for sweetnesslike Thara’s; not beauty, definitely not, but sweetness, which, with the blessing of her parents’ wealth and privilege, endowed it with a comforting glow. Today, for instance, thanks to all the sleeping she had done during the past five days. Thara was captivating; just the slightest bit unkempt, a little untucked and undone, a little pouty and let’s-see-what-I-can-get-away-with, but with the same sweet face. Except for that frown, which spoiled it. And the tone that brought out the Thara that, Latha had to confess, she did like better, the rebel Thara, the Thara who went out to find and keep her own boyfriend, the Thara who was more like her, like Latha.

“You can’t argue about that. A dhobi must wash you. It’s the tradition.” Mrs. Vithanage tucked her sari pota into her waistband. She was wearing a pink sari. Pink was far too youthful a color for most ladies, but no Mrs. Vithanage it seemed just right, even this baby pink hue on soft fabric with white embossed dots all over it. Latha never got to touch the saris. They were dry-cleaned, and it was Mrs. Vithanage or Soma who folded them after a day of wear: Soma had special privileges and access because of her history with us, that’s what Mrs. Vithanage had said when Latha had asked to fold saris once. A spoon fell from the plate to the floor as Latha continued to clean, and Thara turned toward the sound and her.